Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Biggie Smalls

The twentieth century gave birth to the most sublimely perfect pinnacle of literary form, and I betcha dollars to donuts you weren't even paying attention.

That's okay, neither was I, really. The concept in question is the Big Little Book, a quaint contrivance of the 1930s that managed to cling to existence even into the 1980s. Do you remember those? They were children's books that were unusually small in width - they were square-shaped and about the size of a slice of American cheese - but also unusually thick.

Whether you were an avid book reader or strictly a comic-book fan as a kid, the Big Little Books combined the best of both worlds: what made them so brilliant is that each left-hand leaf contained text, while the right-hand side was an illustration depicting a salient moment from that text. Once you got the hang of it, your childhood brain learned to steam ahead through the books almost by osmosis, letting the captioned image on the right act as a skimming aid to grasping the material. By using the distinct capabilities of the left brain and the right brain to their maximum - and it even beats comics in this manner - I still think it's the ultimate literary format.

The frequent illustrations of the Hardy Boys books took advantage of this to a lesser degree, but admit it, fellow nerd: as much as you enjoyed reading, you were always waiting with great anticipation for that next illustration, weren't you?

Lynda Barry's Cruddy - a book so much like my own style but so much better, that I gave up writing for years after reading it - also employs frequent illustrations, more often on the right side than the left. I also suspect Lynda grew up obsessing on Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Big Little Books, same as me.

The first BLB obtained by young Master JSH was "Frankenstein Jr. : The Menace of the Heartless Monster", based on the short-lived 1966 cartoon show. I started reading at an impossibly young age, and was probably all of two years old when my parents bought me this book at the K-Mart in Richmond, KY. The plot, as I recall vividly, centered around hot dogs and a lookalike Frankie Jr. doppleganger. Somewhere in storage, I actually still have it, which is pretty amazing considering all the ups and downs and twists and turns my meandering path has taken.

I'd like to see some indie company start churning out new book-comic hybrids patterned after the Big Little Book style. In fact, I'm really surprised some retro-conscious uber-hipster like Clowes or Ware hasn't already done it.

- - JSH

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